What Is Romeo?

Catherine Gammon


Depressed. In earlier days, alive to his passions. Like Juliet, working out his five hundred fox lives. Now, the body of an old poet. Who knows?—first, third, forty-seventh, two hundred thirty-ninth, or maybe coming to the end. Still handsome, even so.


Is the depression the working out of the lives, the life itself, or the coming to the end of the life, the lives? He doesn't know. Juliet has gone to live at the monastery. Like the old man in the story, she listens each day to the teachers talk. Maybe all the teachers are not so wise as the one wise teacher in the old fox story. But maybe together they are that wise. Or maybe at least her teacher is that wise. Or maybe Juliet is. Who knows?


The old fox story? Romeo has only just heard it from Juliet, although she heard it first a decade ago. It goes something like this, in Romeo's heart: There was an old man, an old poet maybe, an old teacher of poetry, and maybe sixty isn't really so old, not when you look in the mirror and see the angular handsome face you've always seen, with only a few more lines of sorrow, the same grave glimmer of humor and hope, the twinkle of stars that play in the mind, the moon in the heart, the emptiness of the great black well, no difference, really, old or young, just a little more gray in the curls, and maybe shadows where anticipation used to be. But anyhow, there was an old man, an old fox, who went each day to listen to the talks given by a venerable teacher to his assembly of monks. Every day the old man went and stood at the back of the hall and listened and left when the talk was over, until one day he lingered and asked the teacher a question.

The teacher had noticed him there, every day at the back of the hall, and had asked himself each day, "Who may this be?" until finally, maybe, the old man, the old fox, understanding that the teacher was asking himself this question and maybe was ready to hear the answer, waited behind to meet him and engage him in conversation.

"Who may you be?" asked the teacher of the old man. "Each day I have seen you here listening to my talks."

"I am not an ordinary human being," the old man said, and Romeo was ready to take this response in any number of ways, because who is an ordinary human being, after all, and who, after all, wants to be an ordinary human being, an ordinary old man, an ordinary old poet, especially just when being completely ordinary is beginning to offer itself as the only solution to his lifelong bafflement? So Romeo isn't sure whether to read the old man's reply as his own deepest, truest claim, or simply as hubris, the cold blind stone of the heart that all his life has separated him from his life.

The old man went on. "Long ago, in the age of an ancient Buddha, I was the teacher on this mountain. I stood where you stand and I gave the talks. One day a visitor asked me this question: Does a greatly enlightened person fall into cause and effect, or not? I answered: A greatly enlightened person does not fall into cause and effect. And immediately fell into the life of a wild fox."


This turn of the story is interesting to Romeo. The narrative compression to be, with apologies for the dated academic slang, unpacked. For by ordinary logic if the old man's answer was true, his falling is evidence of his not having been a greatly enlightened person, but in that case we cannot infer that he fell for the reason of having given a false answer. And if his answer was false, although we may infer that he has fallen for answering falsely, neither his falling nor his answering falsely logically signifies a lack of great enlightenment. Therefore, his falling proves nothing, his five hundred lives to come as a wild fox prove nothing. A greatly enlightened wild fox is still a wild fox is still a greatly enlightened being is still fallen into cause and effect, still subject to action and consequence. Or not—has fallen because always already fallen, because always already an ordinary being, an ordinary fox, not greatly enlightened and no more above the law of action and consequence than any ordinary unenlightened being. So which is it?

"Now I have lived five hundred wild fox lives and I have come to ask you the question again. Does a greatly enlightened person fall into cause and effect, or not?"

The question Romeo's handsome aging face asks him every morning in the mirror, old man to old man, just like this.

In the story the teacher replies without hesitation and the old man is freed.

Some days this move works for Romeo, and some days it doesn't. Some days he answers the mirror question and knows release. And some days any answer, every answer, rings hollow in his heart. Some days the sunlight on the window sill is enough to sustain him and enough to sustain. Some days he cannot see even one tiny yellow green leaf.

"A greatly enlightened person is not blind to cause and effect," the teacher replies. And the old man is freed.

The story goes on, but this is the part of the story that matters to Romeo. Every day the question. Every day not blind. Every minute. Every breath. As if it were possible.


Do we stop the story here or do we, too, go on? Maybe Romeo would like to go outside, take a walk, or read some poems. Maybe he has spent enough time at the mirror already this morning. The mirror will be waiting for him when he returns. And in fact it is hardly morning anymore, it's almost noon. The day is crisp and cold, probably warmer outside than in, possibly not cold at all. It is early spring. Not much is in bloom yet, barely a crocus, where Romeo lives.

Juliet, on the other hand, has been surrounded by flowers already for months. First plum blossom and quince. Now apple blossom, daffodils, early roses, the long-stemmed white lilies growing wild on the hill. She misses snow. Dreamed a lucid dream not long ago, walked awake and dreaming into a world all snow and ice, glaciers, mountains, plains, blue diamonds glittering moonlit pale under an indigo sky.

Where Romeo lives, snow may yet fall.


The weather keeps turning. The story wants to end but cannot end. Nothing Romeo does can bring it to an end. Nothing he does not do. Maybe he needs a break, maybe a cloud, a hint of rain, and all at once the sun again. Where is Juliet now, with her broken heart that never really had anything to do with him? His sister, his lover, so briefly, really, then this long life of absent friendship.

But still sometimes he sees her, there in the mirror, in the face behind the face, in the eye of the question, in the silence of the answer. The Juliet that never was. The Romeo. Before their names. Before anyone invented them. Not just one of them. Not two. Hundreds. Thousands. Numbers beyond number. Moment after moment. Breath after breath.

He gets stuck here. In the silent regress.


To stop here is not possible. Nor possible to go on. Romeo poised, as he has always been poised, at the point of movement, unmoving, awaiting the seizure, the face across the room, the genius of idea, of love. The snow is nothing to him. It comes, it goes. Here he stands, neither blind nor not blind, man or fox, fox or man. Maybe the phone will ring. Maybe a friend will come to visit, maybe a woman who maybe loves him. Maybe the cat will come in from outside, carrying a bird in her jaws, a big blue-feathered bird, still alive and squirming to escape. She's a relentless hunter. He will save the bird, the bird can be saved. Another winter storm is coming, three weeks into spring.

Are we ready to say good-bye yet? Are we complete?